Mandela has given no interviews in years. Increasingly, he leaves the pronouncements on world affairs to officials of the foundation he established upon retiring. Last month, when he spoke up about Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s rampage against democratic change, he did it at a private dinner in London, and his remarks, conveyed by his aides, seemed relatively mild.
He called Zimbabwe’s agony a “tragic failure of leadership” — very different from the harsh language he used against the United States in 2003, when he accused it of committing “unspeakable atrocities in the world.”
Mandela will spend his birthday privately with family in Qunu, his boyhood village 600 miles south of Johannesburg. There, he built a replica of the house he was held in briefly after being moved off Robben Island, the desolate offshore prison where he spent most of his 27 years.
Mandela wrote in his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” that he chose to recreate the home because he knew it well and “would not have to wander at night looking for the kitchen.”
Mandela has been married three times. Winnie, his second wife, has been active in politics since their 1996 divorce. He spends much of the year in Maputo, the relaxed seaside capital of neighboring Mozambique, homeland of this third wife, Graca Machel, in a home filled with her grandchildren and his.
However sheltered his life has become, Mandela remains a vivid presence for many South Africans, white and black. Despite 5 percent annual economic growth achieved under his successor, Thabo Mbeki, half the population still lives in poverty, unemployment is 25 percent, crime is rampant, and whenever things look especially bleak, the instinct seems to be that things would be different under Mandela.
The racial gap which Mandela sought by word and example to narrow is still glaring in the richer neighborhoods, where whites own the homes and blacks do the gardening. Their children attend the same classes — one of many post-apartheid reforms — and white parents marvel at how well they get along. But they also see the vast gap between the white children’s toy-filled homes and the one-room servants’ quarters of their black schoolmates.
Still, most South Africans would agree that life is better than before Mandela came to power — less volatile, more fair, less uncertain, more democratic. Only a few cranks try to justify apartheid in public.
In his remarks in London, he concluded with words to the young, saying “It is now in the hands of your generations to help rid the world of such suffering.”
He could have been referring to people like Ntobeko Peni, a black man who once believed all whites in South Africa were the enemy, and now says he learned from Mandela to value them as partners in nation-building.
In 1993, Peni, then 20, was among a mob of blacks in Cape Town who attacked Amy Biehl, a visiting white American democracy scholar. Peni and three other men were convicted of stabbing and stoning her to death in what became one of the most infamous episodes of the immediate post-apartheid era.
In 1998, Peni was granted amnesty after confessing before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Mandela’s government established to help unite the country after apartheid. Biehl’s parents publicly forgave him and he now works for the Amy Biehl Foundation, running mentoring programs and music classes for black kids.
Peni, now 35, says Mandela became his role model by his words and also his deeds.
A turning point, he says, was watching on the prison TV as South Africa’s rugby team won the 1995 World Cup and Mandela walked onto the field to congratulate the team. He saw Mandela wearing the team jersey, once the hated symbol of white exclusivity, and he saw the white captain, Francois Pienaar, present the trophy to his black president.
“When I saw that,” Peni said, “I saw cooperation — that we could work together.”
Former opposition leader Tony Leon said some South Africans probably
felt deprived because Mandela was holding the bash in Britain. “But that perhaps is an appropriate metaphor, because South Africa
shares Mandela with the world,” Leon said. “... He rises above party and personality as the most
powerful and potent and positive symbol of all that is good about our
country.” More »
Former opposition leader Tony Leon said some South Africans probably felt deprived because Mandela was holding the bash in Britain. “But that perhaps is an appropriate metaphor, because South Africa shares Mandela with the world,” Leon said. “... He rises above party and personality as the most powerful and potent and positive symbol of all that is good about our country.” More »
Author Sindiwe Magona said that South Africa’s education system is suffering because the government doesn’t provide equal support for students at all age levels or those learning in different languages. More »
“I’ve lived in South Africa all my life,” said 18-year-old Rakgadi Magopa. “All we know of America is what we see on TV and read in newspapers. And I’ve always wondered, ‘Is it really that?’” More »